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Ponchitos joins the parade

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published January 9, 2014 at 3:21 a.m.

ponchitos-guacamole-isnt-made-at-table-side-but-it-is-made-to-order-with-a-stone-mortar-and-pestle

Ponchitos’ Guacamole isn’t made at table-side, but it is made to order with a stone mortar and pestle.

Believe it or not, Ponchitos Mexican Grill is not a chain.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, at least in part because it opened in what had been a chain steakhouse, and in part because somebody put a lot of money into chain-similar signs, menu covers and decor.

Ponchitos has positioned itself in the middle range of area Mexican restaurants, by price and by the customers it’s aiming to attract. At one end of that spectrum you have taco trucks, taquerias and “Mexican-Mexican” restaurants, which serve inexpensive, authentic Mexican food primarily to Hispanics.

Smack in the middle, you have places like Senor Tequila and La Hacienda, which serve somewhat modified-from-authentic Mexican food primarily to Anglos. And at the other end, you have the Cantina Laredo chain and places like Mamacita’s, which serve pricey, possibly authentic but mostly“gring-ified” food almost entirely to Anglos.

We’d put Ponchitos well south of Cantina Laredo and a little “del Norte” of Senor Tequila - the menu is somewhat limited, it’s not “authentic” in the sense of the neighboring Taqueria el Palenque (which we recently reviewed) is authentic, and it’s certainly not inexpensive. But the food is very good, flavorful and comes nicely presented and in large portions that justify the prices.

Ponchitos does, however, start out at a disadvantage: It could have a tough time establishing itself in west Little Rock, which must be almost saturated with Mexican restaurants.

Once you get past the word “Mexican” on the signs and menu covers and that the menu offers tacos, fajitas and carnitas, there’s very little overtly Mexican about the restaurant. The corrugated metal on the dividers between booths and between booths and tables remain from the former Lone Star Steakhouse. The decor involves a lot of hip-looking wall art and pottery that could reflect any kind of upscale place.

Most of the wait staff is distinctly not Hispanic (one waitress, Zusanna, comes from Poland). On our first two visits, the sound system was playing American Top 40 (the only artist we recognized was Taylor Swift, who’s about as Anglo as they come). The third time, at least, the soundtrack was Spanish Top 40 (we recognized Shakira).

We got a trio of salsas in gleaming aluminum bowls - a standard, mild, tomato-based red; a very lively green, chile-based, with plenty of heat but also a very unusual sweetness; and our favorite, a brown roasted tomato and pepper with just the right amount of kick. The accompaniment was a generous bowl of thin, crisp, unsalted tortilla chips, fresh from the fryer and still dewy with oil.

A number of things you’d expect to see on Mexican menus - tamales, for example, or chiles rellenos - are only available at lunch. If you want them for dinner, you will have to include them in the make your-own, mix-and-match Combination Dinner ($7.99).

The most authentic dish was definitely the excellent Guacamole ($5.99), which, though Zusanna did not make it at table-side, she did make it, in the kitchen, and served it in a large stone mortar with the pestle sitting upright in the guac. Ifshe had not admitted that this was her first time to make it, we would never have known - it was delicious, chunky and thick (a bit too thick for the thin chips) and it balanced well avocado, citrus and garlic flavors.

The cheese dip ($3.99) is white, fairly mild (though the spice that’s present accumulates at the back of the palate). If you’re feeling adventurous, definitely try the Patron Gouda Fondue ($7.99), Ponchitos’ version of queso fundido, which very unusually adds gouda to the Mexican cheeses, melted on a sizzling skillet and topped with your choice of chorizo, poblano rajas (strips) or mushrooms. It serves at least two. We forgot to specify, and our waiter forgot to ask, so ours came out sprinkled with chorizo, which was fine; there was just enough for taste but not so much that the fondue, loaded onto flour tortillas, oozed orange oil.

A lot of stuff at Ponchitos comes on sizzling skillets. We expected it for the tasty Fajitas Jalisco ($10.99 single, $19.99 double), shrimp, chicken and steak grilled with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes and just a hint of cilantro.

But we didn’t expect it, because we missed the menu description, of the assemble-yourself Tacos al Pastor ($9.99), chunks of marinated pork and larger chunks of pineapple grilled with onions plus a trio of small flour tortillas. The pork/ pineapple combination was delicious; the pieces of onion were a little too large. We missed the cilantro, unless that was the grilled bits of unidentified, flavorless green stuff on the side that we supposed was parsley.

Our Carnitas ($10.99), marinated pork tips, didn’t come on a sizzling skillet, and they were a little on the bland side, but they were moist and tender (our experience with carnitas is that they are altogether too often overcooked and chewy).

The carnitas and the fajitas came with soupy, cheese topped refried beans and the usual blah, orange-colored Mexican rice, but the tacos came with completely different versions, in nice small square bowls - firm beans in a tangy sauce with bits of pork, and “dirty” rice with a nice zip. (Next time, we’ll see if they’ll serve those sides instead of the “regular” ones.)

On Ponchitos’ tables is an impressive list of specialty margaritas (frozen or on the rocks) and martinis. We were too intrigued to pass up the signature Hibiscus Margarita ($6.99), made with mescal, hibiscus syrup (!) that turned it a vivid red and fresh lime juice - strong, tasty, and not too sweet.

Ponchitos serves a nice, orange-y citrus punch, but on a later visit, when we wished to revisit it, “punch” turned out to be the standard Hawaiian Punch/Hi-C version, for which $2.49 was both steep and disappointing.

Service was good, although it varied between three waiters. As with most Mexican places, food comes out of the kitchen at lightning speed. On two nonbusy visits, entrees came out well before we’d gotten anywhere near getting through our appetizers. Three tortillas were enough for our queso fundido, and managed to work for our fajitas, but it was insufficient for our tacos. And there’s a $1 charge for an additional three tortillas that’s not listed on the menu, and which our waiter didn’t think was worth mentioning.

Ponchitos Mexican Grill

Address: 10901 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday Cuisine: Mexican Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 246-5202 facebook.com/Ponchitos-MexicanGrill

Weekend, Pages 29 on 01/09/2014

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